Khenpo Karpo (1934-2017)

Obituary: This obituary is drawn from several discussions I have been fortunate to have with him over the last seven years. Zhenphen Rinpoche and Kelzang Jurmen summed up Khenpo’s spiritual attainments in their tributes. His extraordinary visionary experiences during meditations as told to Lama Namdrol Zangpo and others will have to remain a subject for lengthier and more serious writings.  Here, I wish to sketch his life as an epitome of commitment and faith, and sheer courage to do something astonishing all his life.   I wish to embed him also within the milieu of the traditional society he belonged.

Dudjom Rinpoche inspired and produced a string of moon-like disciples that lit the clear spiritual sky of Bhutan’s Buddhist heritage. They included many stupendous lamas such as Nakulung, Karpo (lama), Nyingkhu, Namdrol Zangpo, Sanjay, Longdrol and several others. Khenpo Karpo’s entrance into Buddha field on February 19, 2017 with meditative sadhana, shows another remarkable life. Khenpo’s life can be described broadly in three phases. His life as a villager and itinerant trader till the age of 26; as a disciple of Dudjom in Kalimpong till 1990; and as a meditation master and builder of Takela Guru till his passing away.

Khenpo’s father was one of three men from Zhongmed who was a staff member of HRH Ashi Wangmo, then living in retreat on a serene hill above Jampa Lhakhang. The three men were known by their colourful nicknames in her court: the White, the Red and the Black. Khenpo’s father was the Red, who rose to become Ashi’s cattle master. Twice his father married Ngolemo, Khenpo’s mother. He came back to live with her after his second wife passed away. Khenpo was their only child.

In the first part of his life in the village, between the ages of 18 (1952) and 26 (1960), as a sturdy village youth, he shuttled back loads of rice and parched rice from Punakha to Phari and Jomo to exchange them with Chinese synthetic woolen fabric and other goods. He bought Indian cotton clothes in Gudama and bartered them in Talung and Jampaling. For many winters, he carried salt bags from Gudama to Kurtoe, suspending a smoky cattle dung pie around his waist to ward off mosquitoes.

As usual in such time consuming barter transactions, he did not make any spectacular gains. With his childhood friend and long term trading partner, Jigmela, he further took part in east-west trade in cattle, driving draught oxen from Kurtoe to western Bhutan to barter with rice.

Khenpo and Jigmela’s most daring trans-border trade trip was to Bomdilla’s Shar Dukpen region of Arunachal to buy high value bamins. The year was a fire pig.  On their way back, both of them fell ill in turn from malaria for some six months each and his ambition go to Tibet was forever deflected. Moreover, the trading route to Tibet was being closed. It was a time when the exodus of Tibetan refugees brought a cessation to trans-Himalayan trade.

The sole purpose of Khenpo’s trade hitherto was to save some money to pay his way to Tibet for religious training. When Dudjom Rinpoche had reached Kalimpong, Khenpo’s aim changed to go to Kalimpong instead of Tibet, with or without money.

The second part of his life, from the age of 26 (1960) to 56 (1990), revolved intensely around his main guru, Dudjom Rinpoche, and his kaliyanmitras, from his base broadly in Kalimpong.

His maternal, parallel, cousin brother, Lama Longdrel, older than him, was already part of the inner circle of Dudjom Rinpoche. Khenpo, however, received a precautionary message through returning pilgrims that he should not come to Kalimpong without a cushion of Rs 1,000 for living and travel expenses.

Khenpo’s abundant and audacious courage, as always, led him there in 1960 without this full, reassuring amount. He hoped to return briefly to western Bhutan soon to collect his dues from draught oxen sales. But Dudjom Rinpoche forbade him from returning, for Dudjom said that a portentous event would befall him if he did.

The educational choice for him, posed by his cousin Lama Longdrol, was to study philosophical texts (zhung chen) or rituals (choga). Khenpo declined both: he demurred study of philosophical texts on account of being too old, and declined study of performance of rituals because he supposedly lacked the requisite melodious tone of voice. He preferred the path of meditation and mantra.

He was thus ordinated by Dudjom Rinpoche by symbolically cutting a lock of his hair and naming him Jurmed Rangdol. But, since HRH Prince Namgyel Wangchuck, the Paro Penlop, dubbed him gomchen Karpo, finding him wearing a white gho during one of his visits to Kalimpong, the name stuck. His name simply changed to honorific Gelong Karpo and later Khenpo Karpo.

Khenpo found himself in a parsimonious situation in Kalimpong.  Although Dudjom Rinpoche provided meals when they worked in the household or were receiving teachings, there were long periods of time when he was practicing on his own.

He sought daily alms, getting what was generous in those days: spoonfuls of rice. Time marched on, and the year turned 1964. Dudjom Rinpoche left for Ladakh, while Kalimpong became depopulated from fear of a wider Indo-China conflict.

Kalimpong was otherwise a winter resort town for elites from neighbouring countries. HRH Choki, who happened to visit Kalimpong, unexpectedly sponsored him to go to Rajghir, Bodh Gaya and nearby holy sites with Ponlop Khenpo.

Khenpo looked back with pleasure at the period with Penlop Khenpo in open camps as resonating ancient monks travelling on highways and staying in forest groves. Penlop Khenpo gave teachings and Khenpo circled the villages for alms.

Pockets of disciples like him were regularly empty; having Rs 15 was considered extremely rich. He followed Penlop Khenpo to Dehradun and Bhutan, for religious training for some four years, before returning to Kalimpong. Even in Dehra Dun where he was for two years, he and his colleagues, Khenpo Sonam Dendu and Thubten, supported themselves through alms. A round of alms for a whole day throughout the town of Dehra Dun made about Rs 5; each person gave big-heartedly but a paisa. Lodging was free in Bora Temple on a first come first serve basis.

Khenpo’s long three-year retreat took place in Darjeeling Namgyel Chosling monastery in 1974. Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Phuntsho Choden sponsored him along with Lama Sangay, Lama Namdrol Zangpo, and Ugyen Dorji. Before committing him to the long retreat, he and six other disciples including Zhephen Rinpoche, Lama Kunzang Wangdi, and Lama Namdrol Zangpo were summoned by Dudjom to his Kathmandu temple to practice tsalung trulkhor. They practiced in secrecy for 10 days.

While the circle of disciples convened around Dudjom Rinpoche, wherever he happened to be in Kathmandu, Darjeeling or Kalimpong for summer retreats, Khenpo haunted isolated mountains of Bhutan for meditation at other times. He took retreats between three to six months on the mountain of Bemri and Thadra in Thimphu; Shamzur, Shugdrag and Kunzangdrag in Bumthang; Phunyingla and Singyedzong in Kurtoe; Kurbum in Mangde; Maratika in Nepal and a few secluded places in Sikkim.

The third and last part of his life consisting of 27 years was devoted first to a meditational centre in Pelphug above Zhongmed, his birth place, where he moved in 1990; and then in a single-minded manner to the completion of the world’s tallest statue of Guru Rinpoche in nearby Takela.

After he returned to Pelphug in 1990, several visions spurred Khenpo to build the Takela Guru. He dreamt, for instance, of a big guru statue being consecrated by Lhasa Jowo. He was troubled and at the same time motivated by the prophecy to build Guru Nangsid Zilnon in Takela in Kurilung (ancient name of Kurtoe).

He resolved and started building it in 2004, without precisely knowing how much and how long it would take. In course of doing so, he raised a considerable sum from private individuals, tirelessly travelling to Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, where the mass of generous Buddhists live.

Khenpo was a man of incredible conviction and fortitude, aiming at results without any aversion for processes that it might entail. He took similar view of journeys to unknown places: he was only concerned with the destination. This can be illustrated with how he doggedly made his way, with just gesticulations, to Charles de Gaul Airport in Paris.

While he was in Kurtoe, he decided on an impulse, after discussing with Lama Namdrol, to go to see Dudjom Rinpoche. Five years had passed since their Guru left for Dordogne in France; the only news they got was that he was feeling better. Khenpo Karpo pawned his valuables – 20 silver water offering bowls, bells and a vajra – worth exactly Nu 20,000 and Lama Namdrol found a similar amount. With air tickets to France, they boarded a plane from Delhi.

Neither of the two spoke any English nor had they taken a flight before. At dawn, when the aircraft was filled with commotion, after landing, the two of them followed the rest and tried to exit, without having filled any immigration forms. But Khenpo had the address of Dordogne pinned on his monk’s robe and a letter in hand about where they were heading.

Nearly lost in the train station, they were met by Trulku Pema Wangchen. Perhaps the day they reached Paris was 2.1.1987. When they subsequently called on Dudjom on a tshe-chu day, and prostrated in front of him, he blessed them with his hands. A marvelous smile passed over his face, without any words.

Dudjom Rinpoche passed away exactly 15 days after Khenpo reached Dordogne, notwithstanding the preparation they made for a chimi sogthig zhabten on that snowy night. Khenpo and Lama Namdrol lived in Dordogne for a year until the holy relic of Dudjom was flown to Kathmandu.

Khenpo will be flown to Bhutan after his meditative practice ends in Bangkok Hospital, where he was under the gracious care of His Majesty The King. His kaliyanmitra Lama Namdrol Zangpo, disciples and patrons will be accompanying  him on his journey home.

Contributed by Karma Ura from Bangkok

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